The Third L
by Thomas Strange.
I was once sat in a restaurant when my date looked up from her curried goat and said to me “I don’t believe in love. It’s a concept created by the bourgeoisie to trick people into monogamy.” This was an interesting shift in conversation. She had just finished telling me about how working as a financial advisor didn’t conflict with her socialist politics. I struggled to think of a response, but luckily, she wasn’t looking for one. “Do you want to get some mandy after this? It helps me empathise.”
Initially I brushed off what she had said as cynical nonsense, but later in our drug induced haze I began to wonder if there might be some truth to it. Not in the same way as she had phrased it of course. I didn’t believe a group of medieval merchants had gathered together in their tunics and stockings and said “you know what we need to do? We need to come up with a crafty scheme to convince people to buy wedding dresses.” Rather, I questioned the manufactured love of pop songs and trashy romance novels. The sort of love in Cupid’s arrow that can make a pair of Veronese preteens commit mutual suicide. Is love as grandiose as all that? Or is it just an intense mixing of like and lust?
Is the love we have for a partner any different from the love that we have for our family? Is it any different from the love we have for the friendships we maintained throughout our life? Or from the love we have of music, or writing, or of sunsets? Other than sex, what does romantic love have that the others do not?
When we glorify romantic love, are we really just revealing our collective obsession with sex?
After this first date over curried goat, we continued seeing each other for about four months before her eternal cynicism outweighed the mind-altering sex. I went home and told EVE to find me someone new. “Maybe about ten percent less cynical this time,” I asked. “And a bit more empathetic.”
EVE had become a staple of modern life. Everyone used it. They had developed a supposedly perfect algorithm for love and claimed to be able to find the perfect partner for anyone. It tracked everything you did, creating a data profile of your likes and dislikes, and of your interests and hobbies, what you find attractive, what you like in bed, anything that could potentially influence a relationship. It would compare your data profile to others and find your ‘perfect match’. And if that perfect match didn’t work out, it would find you another one.
As hard as EVE tried, I struggled to connect meaningfully with anyone after that. I went through a string of short-term relationships. Never for more than a few months. Never getting past like or lust. That third L, love, seemed forever out of my grasp.
EVE sent me on a date with an evangelical Christian turned Buddhist with green hair. She drank green tea and told me about its health benefits between puffs of her cigarette. She wanted to be a playwright but felt the theatre was too elitist. We agreed upon a mutual dislike for the superficialness of online dating, and she then went on to tell me about her love of the Kardashians. At one point I told her I hadn’t read any Kafka and she ignored me for a full three minutes.
There was a girl who was vaguely descended from someone from Cork who took me to every Irish bar in the city. She knew each bartender by name, and they all knew her favourite drink. We went back to hers, both incredibly drunk, only to find her bed was buried beneath a pile of laundry. Too drunk to do anything else we made do with sleeping on the floor.
A woman with an interest in anatomy had memorised every bone in the human body and liked using me to practice pointing them out. She had dark, dangerous eyes that both terrified me and aroused me. One day she discussed the density of the tibia with such relish I began to fear for my thighs.
I went on a date with a vegan who, when seeing me order the jerk chicken, said “ooh that looks nice. I think I’ll have that too.”
One girl was so shy she never spoke above a whisper. She had an obsession with collecting crystals to the point that her bedroom was more crystal than room. She talked me through every amethyst and quartz until I wanted to stab them into my eyes. The next morning, I found out she still lived with her parents. She introduced me as a fellow crystal lover, and they looked like they wanted to stab them into their eyes too.
Then EVE found me Samantha.
Her first words to me were “sorry I don’t look much like my EVE profile. My mother’s been insisting I come over and try lots of new recipes recently, so I’ve been packing on the pounds.”
We had met at a small French themed bar. There were almost as many tables as there were pictures of the Eifel Tower. The name of the place was carved into each table in pretentious ornate calligraphy: “El Bistró Bonito”.
I looked at her as we sat down. “I was actually going to say you look even better in real life.”
She raised a well-crafted eyebrow at me. “What a charmer. Be still my beating heart.”
The date went well from there. EVE had done her job well. Each of us was exactly what we looked for physically. We both liked artsy movies. We recited poetry we had written and mocked each other for sounding pretentious.
But it caught her off guard when I told her I worked for EVE.
“Do you not feel complicit?” she asked.
“In what way?”
“In the way that they have convinced the entire world to let them choose who we date. Who we fuck. Who we marry. The way they have used their data driven algorithms to reconstruct the very way we feel desire, all to make a profit.”
I thought about this for a moment, then shrugged. “I just work in IT procurement.”
She seemed mollified by my answer, so we ordered some shots before going home and fucking each other senseless.
The next few dates flew by. We attended poetry recitals at local bookshops and watched indie bands in dingy pub backrooms. She teased me relentlessly in a way I had never realised I could enjoy so much, and then took me home and tied me to her bedposts.
One night, a few months later, we were lying in bed when I turned to her and asked, “do you believe in love?”
She looked at me for a moment, her dark eyes as unreadable to me as they had ever been. Then her lips pressed against mine, hard. “I think love is a powerful drug.” She climbed to her knees above me, looking down with her legs either side of my head. “You simply need a taste of it, and it will fill you with so much bliss you forget about everything else.”
I looked up at her nakedness above my mouth. “That sounds more like sex than love to me.”
Her eyes glittered down at mine. “Oh yes, so it does. Get on with it then.”
Afterwards, she went and sat beneath the open window and lit a cigarette. Rose tinted sunlight fell across her naked body. Smoke rose languidly from her lips. “Why did you ask me that? The thing about love.”
I thought about my answer for a moment. “I used to date someone who didn’t think it was real. They believed it was some grand conspiracy designed to force us into marriage.”
She contemplated that for a moment, sucking on her cigarette. Then her face lit up into a smile. “Well, you know where the perfect place to find the people running that grand conspiracy would be?”
She stared at me incredulously, making me feel as though I was missing something obvious. “EVE! Who else better to be in charge of manufacturing love than the company that manufactures love?”
“What, so I should just go up to the CEO and ask him if love is real?”
She shrugged. “Why not? If anyone is likely to know it would be him.”
I considered this. “I’m not senior enough to just walk up to him,” I eventually said. “Plus, he only visits the London office about once a year.”
She frowned at me. “Okay. Well, you’re in IT, don’t you have access to the servers? Couldn’t you just get in there and find their dirty secrets.”
“I work in IT procurement. I make sure people’s keyboards arrive on time.” I shook my head as I saw her frown deepen. “Besides, I doubt they have a folder titled ‘dirty secrets’.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” Her frown had been replaced by a wry smile. “I suppose I could ask Hannah to help.”
“You know Hannah. My hacker friend? She’ll know a way, I’m sure of it.”
I wasn’t convinced, but Samantha went ahead and asked her friend anyway. She had set her mind on it, so that was that. Two weeks later she handed me a small USB stick. “All you need to do is go to where they keep the servers and plug this in. Hannah will do the rest.”
The USB key was small, just a little lump of plastic in my hand. I stared down at it. “If I get caught, I could lose my job.”
“Then don’t get caught.” She smiled ruefully at me, then tapped the stick. “This is important. If we find out that love is just a ruse created by capitalists… It could change everything.” She looked at my unconvinced face. “Please? This is important to me.”
I closed my hand around the USB and nodded. “I’ll do it.” The smile that appeared on her face made the decision worth it.
The next few days were a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation, as I calculated my plan of action. I had never done anything like this before and didn’t really know how to feel.
The servers were, luckily, kept in my office. Even if I was just procurement, I was still technically part of IT. They weren’t guarded, aside from a security camera by the door. I learned that the camera feed went to a desk at reception, where a board guard kept an eye on the office. Most of the next week was spent learning this guard’s routine. Luckily for me, he didn’t seem to be a man of spontaneity. Every morning at nine o’clock, he arrived with a cup of coffee. Half an hour later he went to the bathroom. This left the desk unmanned for up to ten minutes.
Once I had his routine figured out, I told Hannah to be ready at half past nine the following morning. That night, Samantha’s excitement was palpable. “I can’t believe we’re actually about to do this.” She hadn’t stopped smiling all evening.
I had a more subdued expression on my face. “Say we find everything we’re looking for tomorrow. The answers to all our questions. What do we do with those answers?”
“You mean if it turns out that love is just a conspiracy after all?”
“Exactly. What then? Do we just accept that a truly meaningful relationship doesn’t exist and abandon monogamy? Or do we stubbornly go on and pretend nothing has changed?”
“I don’t know. Does it really matter?”
“How doesn’t it matter? If everything we’ve ever thought about love is a lie?”
“Do you go into every relationship thinking they’re going to be the love of your life? I’m not dating you because I feel like I need to find a man to get married to, move to Highgate, and have two point five kids and an allotment. I’m too young for that shit. I’m with you because I like you and enjoy spending time with you. Plus, I like the sex. Can’t we be happy with that? If it turns out that this great and powerful force of love wasn’t actually all that great and powerful then it doesn’t mean we can’t still be happy together.” She gives me a slow and gentle kiss. “We can stop if you want to. If you really can’t do this. At the end of the day, I will still deeply care for you either way.”
I shook my head. “No. I can do this.”
The next day my commute into work went by in a flash of anxious energy. I arrived at nine and nodded at security as I walked past. He nodded back, taking a sip of his coffee.
At my desk, I sat there for half an hour fidgeting nervously. The clock ticked slowly, my eyes only ever leaving it momentarily. I began to question what I was doing. I wanted to know for certain if love was real, but did I want to risk my job over it? Did I want to risk being arrested over it?
Was I really doing this for me? Or was I doing it for Samantha? I became more convinced that I was only doing this because I wanted to make her smile. Because my feeling for her were that strong. Because I…
I pulled the USB out of my pocket and looked at it for a moment. Then I got up, walked over to the bin, and dropped it in. I didn’t need to go through all this to find out if love was real. I knew the answer already.